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Weighing the Strengths and Weaknesses of Royalty-Free Music

Picture of Andrew Parks
4 minute read

Depending on how you define it, the phrase “royalty-free music” is either slightly misleading or woefully inaccurate. For one thing, there’s a big difference between songs that are exploited via a Creative Commons license or the public domain, and songs that are simply available for paying subscribers via a platform like Soundstripe or Epidemic Sound. As the latter explains in one of its many tutorials, “royalty-free music is NOT free. The word ‘free’ in royalty-free refers to you not having to pay royalties every time you use a piece of music.”

The party who does pay it? Epidemic Sound, of course, thanks to the money its subscription model generates.  

“You might have figured this out on your own already,” Soundstripe explains in its own post about the meaning of royalty-free music, “but finding music tracks that belong to nobody and have 100% zero copyrights is extremely rare. The vast majority of music you're going to find is, in fact, copyrighted — including royalty-free music. And royalties are still being paid, even on music considered royalty-free. Weird, right?”

How this works for songwriters who supply royalty-free services with exclusive compositions differs. In Epidemic Sound’s case, music creators are encouraged to “earn a living” through several potential revenue streams: 

  1. A flat, upfront fee ranging from $1,000 to $5,000

  2. 50/50 splits on any earnings from streaming platforms like Spotify

  3. and a self-proclaimed “Soundtrack Bonus” that is “proportional to the performance of their tracks in our Epidemic Player.” 

While a “Soundtrack Bonus” may sound like a welcome development — who doesn’t enjoy making extra money? — it’s more reflective of the dubious “pro rata” model in place at most streaming platforms. The New York Times devoted an entire story to this divisive money pot model, which they called “a business of pennies (and fractions of pennies)” — one that “favors artists with mass appeal…. putting niche genres at a disadvantage and extending the gulf between music’s haves and have-nots.”    

“To me, we’re not in a period of expansion,” Damon Krukowski (Galaxie 500, Damon & Naomi) says rather matter-of-factly in the story. “From an individual perspective of musicians, it has just been a downward trend of the rewards for our labor.”

The New Meaning of “Library Music” 

Royalty-free libraries try to right some of the music industry’s wrongs by putting a little power back in the hands of songwriters and creators. Which makes sense; many of the companies built around that business model were founded by musicians looking for a seamless, profitable way to license mood, genre, and instrument-specific compositions out to a growing number of podcast producers and webcam warriors.  

“SoundStripe came along when [co-founder Travis Terrell] and I were producing and pitching little 30-second jingles for big brands,” former touring guitarist Micah Sannan explains in a Music Row feature about Soundstripe’s steady growth. “We realized that an email from a music supervisor will go out to a thousand different producers/composers saying, ‘Hey, we need this jingle.’ There’s only one spot, so what about the 999 other jingles? What if we could find an audience for those songs?”

Epidemic Sound has a similar origin story. “So many of our musician friends were working in coffee shops and bars, trying to make it by writing and gigging on their nights off,” says co-founder Peer Åstrōm. “We knew there was so much talent there that was not just reliant on hard work but also on catching a lucky, lucky break. We thought that there had to be a way that they could create bespoke tracks, written to a brief, for a specific purpose, which would allow them to be fairly paid for their work and still give them time to work on the tracks they felt had a shot at the charts.”

The tricky thing about royalty-free tracks and the many licensing companies that deal with them on a daily basis is how they address copyright infringement claims on leading media platforms like YouTube. Since Content ID claims are especially common and practically unavoidable, Epidemic Sound tries to simplify the block/track/monetize process by asking its users to link their Twitch, YouTube, Facebook, and TikTok accounts to their subscription. That way they will recognize the licenses creators already secured with a paid Epidemic plan. TLDR, royalty-free works should not be uploaded to YouTube's Content ID to avoid making claims on videos that properly licensed the music for use on the platform, royalty-free.

What Happens When You Receive a Copyright Strike for Royalty-Free Music

The constant, automated nature of copyright infringement claims — whether they’re for a viral YouTube or TikTok video or an online mixtape site — means that mistakes and misunderstandings are often made during takedowns. The rules are sometimes written along the way, as they were during a widespread takedown effort against the Joakim Karud track “Dreams.” 

According to popular YouTube creator Matt Lowne, the widely available song — a staple in his Kerbal Space Program videos since 2013 — was flagged by Sony/ATV and Warner Chappell because it samples the Kenny Burrell Quartet recording “Weaver of Dreams.” Apparently, Karud never ran the loop by its rights holders. (Here’s the part where we remind you that songs containing uncleared samples should never be registered with Songtrust.)

To complicate matters even further, Lowne acquired Karud’s free composition from a channel billing itself as the YouTube Audio Library. Turns out it’s not the Audio Library that YouTube provides creators within its Studio platform. And neither is the similarly named — and even more popular! — Audio Library channel that boasts nearly 765 million views, 4.54 million subscribers, and an insurmountable mound of content. 

How this all relates back to Songtrust is relatively simple. If you own a royalty-free music library, you should not administer it through us. It may seem okay because you can opt out of direct YouTube collections via Songtrust, but that means simply that we won’t register and collect on your behalf using our direct relationship with YouTube. CMOs and PROs all over the world will continue to collect on YouTube usage in their territories because our agreements with them include that right - and in most cases, that is due to government mandate.

If Songtrust administers your work, be careful about submitting it to a royalty-free library. By submitting, you may be waiving your rights to certain royalties that Songtrust is already collecting on your behalf, which will cause conflicts. Be sure to understand the terms of the services you are using and that they do not conflict with one another.

For more on how royalty-free music works, check out our Help Center


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